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Lessons of Darkness

Struggling to stay positive, documentarians fight the power, reach for the gold at Sundance

PARK CITY, UTAH—With outward-bound Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein limiting himself to two Park City pickups, the 800-pound gorilla at Sundance this year was actually an 800-pound bear—one of the stars of Werner Herzog's wild documentary GRIZZLY MAN. But the lesson was brutally familiar: The big animal cannot be budged.

Power struggles—petty and otherwise, most of them futile for all but the heaviest of heavyweights involved—have long been a fact of life at this ruthlessly market-driven platform for low- and medium-budget cinema. But never in my 11 years at Sundance have I seen so much bitter contention played out on-screen. Though fiction still felt the need to put a positive spin on our handbasket ride to hell, one documentary film after another—and there were dozens this year—hammered home the point that power not only corrupts but consolidates, leaving those without it to count the casualties. WHY WE FIGHT, Eugene Jarecki's well-deserved winner of the docs' Grand Jury Prize, answers its own question in near scholarly detail even though its conclusion is elementary: We fight for the money. (Naturally, the film was funded by the BBC.)

The documentarian's own desire to compete for the gold may or may not explain the wealth of genuine pessimism on display; certainly those left on the left these days—the target audience for docs, obviously—have little trouble identifying with the loser. The grizzly man of Herzog's lacerating film devotes his life—literally—to what he loves. The gay welterweight of RING OF FIRE: THE EMILE GRIFFITH STORY appears permanently bruised by having beaten to death the Spanish opponent who called him queer. SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: THE JOURNEY OF ROMÉO DALLAIRE observes the former U.N. peacekeeping commander whose conscience remains scarred by his inability to compel rich nations to intervene in Rwanda. (Why We Don't Fight would be an apt title for this one.)

Get low: Rize
photo: Lions Gate Films
Get low: Rize

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  • If Hotel Rwanda can be seen as Devil's avenging angel, with a more resilient-looking actor in the Dallaire role, the fest's less despairing documents of human struggle similarly seemed to approach positivity with the help of natural-born performers. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON puts its money on the musician in his ongoing battle with inner demons. Of the doc protagonists who dare to go head to head with religious conservatives, the bubbly high school activist of THE EDUCATION OF SHELBY KNOX seems to apply her knowledge more effectively than the weary victim of priestly abuse whom we see hit bottom in TWIST OF FAITH (which earned an Oscar nomination during the fest). Optimism may not be a privilege in every case, though a little humor rarely hurts one's bid to fight the power—or land distribution.

    Among the irreversible downers here, one of the biggest was the news that documentary giant Frederick Wiseman had "decided" to pull his three-hour, 16mm film about Madison Square Garden from the festival, owing to "unresolved issues" with his monumental subject. (Silver lining on the cloud: This increasingly digital fest apparently still screens 16mm prints—at least those belonging to giants.) Another old-school nonfiction vet, William Greaves, fared better with the belated sequel to his classic Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. Would you believe that TAKE 2 1/2, like its predecessor, is about the stubborn immutability of power?

    Much to its credit (and the festival's), Greaves's genre-busting take on privilege as it relates to the politics of filmmaking isn't a movie that's very suitable for mass consumption. Predictably, perhaps, the year's big-ticket doc about race and class is the work of a rich, white fashion photographer turning his gaze on a poor, black subculture. It's also the most infectiously energetic and inspiring doc I've seen in years. RIZE, which follows the moves of hip-hop dancers so crazy-quick that the doc starts by vowing its footage hasn't been manipulated, was rightly regarded in Park City as the South Central Paris Is Burning. Director David LaChapelle opens with images of L.A. ablaze in '65 and '92, and ends, after several sad turns, with a Maya Angelou poem. In between, the dancers prove more than capable of directing themselves, which makes the movie less tricky to applaud.

    If Rize belongs with the omnibus stand-up howler THE ARISTOCRATS in the burgeoning category of Extreme Documentary, my other favorite work of Sundance nonfiction is just as thrillingly minimalist. Jenni Olson's THE JOY OF LIFE unites landscape shots of a hauntingly vacant San Francisco with noir-style voice-overs that combine romantic poetry, cinema-studies esoterica (Vertigo naturally figures here), and the contested politics of the Golden Gate Bridge, with its open invitation to suicides. The result is gently hypnotic, yet amazingly The Joy of Life also serves as a forceful call to action on behalf of those who, like a good friend of Olson's did in 1995, might choose to take a fateful leap off that low railing.

    Postscript: A press release that arrived near festival's end brought the surprising news that The Joy of Life has compelled the Golden Gate's board of directors to reconsider its earlier pledge to keep the bridge's dangerous architecture intact. Chalk one up for the agitator.

     
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